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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Emotions Vs Intellect Vs God's Law (part II)

[Part I is here]

Rabbinic literature is loaded with discussions about the importance and greatness of Bris Milah. In many postings, I have alluded to the connection between Bris and Pesach (I will write about this some day). One of the most noticable connections is that Elijah the prophet makes an "appearance" at both.

Here is another connection, as quoted in the Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer (the same one I've quoted a few times recently - just a different section of his comments):
 פרקי דרבי אליעזר (היגר) - "חורב" פרק כח

בני יעקב מלו את בניהם ואת בני בניהם והנחילם לחק עולם עד שעמד פרעה הרשע וגזר גזירות קשות ומנע להם ברית מילה, וביום שיצאו ישראל ממצרים נמולו כל העם מקטון ועד גדול, שנ' כי מולים היו, והיו ישראל לוקחין דם ברית מילה ונותנין על משקוף בתיהם דם ברית מילה ודם פסח ונתמלא רחמים על ישראל, שנ' ואעבור עליך ואראך מתבוססת בדמיך, בדמך לא כתיב אלא בדמיך, בשני דמים דם ברית מילה ודם פסח, ואומר לך בדמיך חיי, ר' אליעזר אומ' וכי מה ראה הכתוב שני פעמים בדמיך חיי, אלא אמ' הב"ה בזכות דם ברית מילה ובזכות דם פסח נגאלו ממצרים ובזכות דם ברית מילה ובזכות דם פסח אתם עתידים להגאל בסוף מלכות רביעי

The children of Jacob circumcised their children and grandchildren and left them with this practice forever until the wicked Pharaoh rose and made harsh decrees, preventing them from doing Bris Milah (performing the covenantal circumcision). On the day they left Egypt the entire nation was circumcised, from young to old, as it says "Because they were circumcised when they left Egypt" (Joshua 5:5).

The Israelites took the blood of the circumcision and they put that blood and the blood of the Paschal lamb and put them both on the doorposts to become recipients of God's mercy on that fateful night, as it says " And I passed by you and saw you downtrodden with your bloods, and I said to you, 'With your bloods, live,' and I said to you, 'With your bloods, live.' (Ezekiel 16:6). It doesn't say "blood" in the singular, because it refers to two bloods which caused God to skip over the houses that night.

Rabbi Eliezer says, "Why does the verse say 'With your bloods, live' twice? Because the Holy One Blessed be He declared that in the merit of the blood of the covenant and in the merit of the blood of the lamb the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, and in those same merits they will be redeemed again, at the end of the fourth exile."
3. A Covenant of Blood (count continues from previous posting)

In essence, then, we have a covenant created over blood.
Think of the concept of being "Blood Brothers," or of swearing or sealing an agreement with blood. In modern times we might look at such an idea as being figurative, but in ancient times as well as until relatively recently, a blood arrangement was literally made with the sharing of blood.

In this case, no one is advocating that blood be shared between people (at least I am not), but blood plays an important role in this covenantal agreement between God and the Jewish people, as it did at the time of the exodus from Egypt.

Think about it: the first of the plagues was "Blood." One of the signs Moses was to use to prove to the Israelites that he was sent by God was to take water from the river and pour it on the dry land for it to turn into blood (See Exodus 4:9). In many places, the Torah describes life itself as "blood," even prohibiting the ingestion of blood for the simple reason that we have no right to swallow the source of life (Leviticus 7:26, 17:10-14; Deuteronomy 12:23 and on).

In this respect, the concept of having a Brit Shalom is contradictory. A Brit Without Milah makes no sense. If an agreement is made between two parties that "If you do 'x' I will do 'y,'" the only way the 'y' can come about is if the other party does 'x.' If the covenant is important to people, then the circumcision aspect must be done. If you want to be part of the covenant without the circumcision, well - I hate to say this - you're not keeping your end of the deal.

In which case, being part of the covenant, from the perspective of those who are not doing their end of the deal, is an elitist, arrogant, snide way of saying "Give me all the benefits of being part of a group or club, without my having any responsibilities." It's like those Jews who call themselves "the chosen people" but have no idea what it means. [It does not mean that Jews are better than others - it means that God chose to give the Jewish people the Torah on Mt. Sinai, so they may teach the world of God's morals and ethics, teach monotheism, and, if they behave properly according to the dictates of the Torah, serve as a model for mankind of what it means to live a Godly existence on this world. God "chose" the Jewish people for a reason - because He loved Abraham, who loved Him first.] Wikipedia has a decent (never great) entry on this subject. Suffice it to say, based on the words of Amos quoted by Wikipedia, chosenness is more a burden and responsibility than a privilege.

4. The Mitzvah of the Parent

There is one argument that states that circumcision is the right of the individual, and not the parent, to make. While this is a valid argument to make when it comes to elective surgeries like breast augmentation and even routine circumcision, it is irrelevant when it comes to Bris Milah. Bris Milah is a mitzvah for a father to do on his child. Every Jewish source, compiled by scholars who understood Jewish law, is very clear on this point. And the way a father demonstrates his agreement to his own circumcision is through doing it to his son.

Who wants to see their own child cry? No one. Who wants to see their child subjected to a painful experience? No one. This is a difference between a person of faith and a person who draws only on what their "instinct" tells them. [See more on this in the summary below]

The arguments that are brought quoting Maimonides and every other Biblical source (including 'rituals' of the Torah that are no longer done due to our 'enlightenment') in order to suggest the need to cancel Bris Milah are all either taken out of context or stem from a genuine ignorance of the facts.

To take one example from one of the websites linked to above:
Additionally, halacha provides for the ceremony of hatifat dam berit (shedding of a token drop of blood) for babies who can not be circumcised due to health reasons. This is deemed to be completely valid in marking the Covenant.
This is completely false. There is such a ceremony, but it is only done on persons who were circumcised outside of the realm of a "bris ceremony"  - not on people who are not circumcised at all. (Frankly, if a person does not like the idea of circumcision, I see no reason why even this ceremony would be acceptable to them. Leave the baby alone!)

And while there are circumstances that a. allow a bris to be postponed, or b. allow for a bris to not take place at all, thank God these circumstances are virtually unheard of today due to advancements of medical science.

The circumstance that would "allow" parents to leave their children "intact" without being culpable according to Jewish law for not having participated in the circumcision covenant is if they lost two boys already on account of circumcision. In our day, the most likely case of this happening (always assuming the mohel is responsible and good at his job) is in the case of a hemophiliac baby, or a family of hemophiliacs. In the 21st century, thank God, babies who have such a condition can still be circumcised without danger, under proper care and supervision.

Brisses that are postponed for health reasons are supposed to take place as soon as the baby is healthy and ready to have a circumcision. If the baby needs a reconstructive surgery for anatomical reasons, the surgery will result in a circumcised penis.

Otherwise, the law clearly states that a young man whose circumcision is not taken care of for him by his parents or by the rabbinical court becomes obligated to take care of it himself once he becomes an adult - for this purpose, he is considered an adult when he becomes a Bar Mitzvah at age 13.

5. Repercussions (Whether we like it or not) or "the need to be intellectually honest"

It is true that a Jew is Jewish no matter what, if born to a Jewish mother. But it is also true that not circumcising carries with it the following "drawback" (take it as you will):
The uncircumcised male whose foreskin has not been circumcised, shall have his soul cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.' (Genesis 17:14)
Simply put, you can't have it both ways. You can't say you want to be part of the covenant but don't want to do what the covenant says. And if you don't want to be part of the covenant, that's fine. Don't circumcise. But don't think that just because you can "still be a Jew" even if the circumcision is not done (which is true), that there are no repercussions.



People are entitled to have their heart dictate to them how they are going to live their lives. Thankfully, we live in a free society where individuals have freedom of choice. You can choose to circumcise, or not. You can accept the emotional attachment some have to this commandment, or reject it. You can say this doesn't work for me. But this becomes a personal choice. Your own emotions will not dictate public policy, and frankly, if you play with other people's fears, you have a good chance of having your agenda backfire on you.


The intellectual approach to "choosing" whether or not to have the Bris done to one's child is a challenge in and of itself. The real intellectual does a tremendous amount of research, asks all the right questions, gathers the information – all the facts and opinions, and comes to a conclusion.

The unfortunate element of the "intellectual" anti-bris movement is that it is pseudo-intellectual. In a phrase, it is "intellectually dishonest." We can raise all the arguments we want about the greatness of the foreskin, the thousands of nerve endings in it, the important role it plays for the penis, etc.

The reality is that most normal circumcised men do not think twice about their missing foreskin. They don't miss it, and are usually glad it was removed when it was, at the age of a few days old.

The "trauma" most people speak of has nothing to do with the bris. Anyone who was a few days old and had an uncomplicated procedure (which is the case for most people), heal in a couple of days and live very normal existences. And they have zero memory of the experience. The only ones who might suffer any traumatic experience are the baby's parents who really did not know what they were in for.


Bris Milah is a mitzvah given by God to Avraham, and then to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Every covenant between God and the Jewish people alludes to this agreement, which is accompanied by this surgical procedure. It is not outdated, and was never meant to be outdated. The only element which is outdated are some ancient methods of achieving the desired result, which are easily remedied with 21st century sensibilities (i.e. an awareness of the positive developments of sterile technique, as well as the causes of infections).

Even people of faith have questions, and asking questions is a good thing. But no single answer is sufficient, no single rabbi or teacher can give you all the answers. However, a conclusion must come from somewhere, and it stems from all the research you'll do, the questions you'll ask, the people you will come in touch with.

The difference, though, with people of faith, is that even when they have questions, their conclusions are foregone conclusions. They know they will do the Bris Milah not only because it is "part of the tradition," but also because it is part of the definition of who we are as a people.

"You want to be a Jew through and through, able to participate in all aspects of the Jewish experience?" the Torah asks. "Well, being a Jew, being part of this tradition, requires one thing of the males – to be circumcised."

There is even a tradition to circumcise the uncircumcised before burying them. Which means that even if in life your parents and then you decided to leave you alone, it will all be for naught when the Jewish burial society prepares your body for burial. But I don't want to scare you.

Find out who you are, do the research, look into everything, and make a choice. Use your brain, look into God's law, and discover the truth that is in your heart.

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